‘The Gods are Here, Invisible, Mischievous, and Meddling’: Vladimir Nabokov and the Presence of God in John 19

‘I used to be a little conjuror when I was a boy. I loved doing simple tricks—turning water into wine, that kind of thing; but I think I’m in good company because all art is deception and so is nature’.
Vladimir Nabokov, Strong Opinions, 10.

 

I.

The cry of dereliction—‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ (Matt 27.46; Mark 15.34)—is often understood by theologians as denoting God’s absence, the separation of God from God, in the crucifixion event. Oddly, for a book so rich in Christology, the Gospel of John makes no mention of this truly iconic and derelict outcry. What matters is that it is not there and what this absence might mean in light of Vladimir Nabokov’s metaphysical aesthetics of deception—‘Every great writer is a great deceiver, but so is that arch-cheat Nature. . . . The writer of fiction only follows Nature’s lead’. [1]

It is inevitable to see patterns occurring throughout one’s life, but at what point does the discernment of patterns turn into a sort of madness? After all, it is only in fiction and myth that the conjurer, responsible for the mysterious and disjointed patterns which constitute the essence of the work, appears under the deceptive guise of the anagrammatic name—as Nabokov so often does as Vivian Darkbloom (Lolita), Vivian Bloodmark (Speak, Memory), and Adam von Librikov (Transparent Things)—right? What are the odds that reality, by which I mean the phenomenal world, encourages readings of this sort in which the watermark of ‘the divine’ is cloaked by a deceptive series of symbols and signs, combinatory names of seemingly unrelated individuals, and the chance mimicked anagram which surely cannot be chance?

These are among the fundamental ethical, aesthetic, and metaphysical concerns presented in the fictional writings of Vladimir Nabokov, and they highlight one significant aspect of Nabokov’s art: deception qua metafictional and metaphysical device. Coupled with his Romantic notion of a unique analogy existing between the artist and the divine, Nabokovian deception helps us to make sense of the myriad anagrammatic traces and incarnations of the author permeating his fiction, as well as the sense of generosity with which his sense of deception is loaded. These deceptions usually remain undetected until further readings unconceal their identities as hints of their maker, serving as revelatory invitations for creative engagement with the created world and, through this creative engagement, its maker. These deceptions—what Friedrich Hölderlin had earlier called hints (‘And hints are, from time immemorial, the language of the gods’, Rousseau ll. 31–32)—most often manifest themselves, whether in nature or Nabokov’s art, in the unexpected superimposition of one pattern atop another and should elicit a ‘thrill of gratitude to whom it may concern—to the contrapuntal genius of human fate or to tender ghosts humoring a lucky mortal’. [2] As a literary device, Nabokovian deception is ineluctably metaphysical, unconcealing through the deception the providential beneficence responsible for the work of art. Understood in terms of Nabokov’s divine rival, deception is the preferred revelatory style of the Almighty (cf. Prov 25.2; Luke 24.13ff).

We might be tempted to call it madness, and yet a comment from an anonymous peer-reviewer regarding the bibliography of Yuri Leving’s edited volume, Anatomy of a Short Story: Nabokov’s Puzzles, Codes, ‘Signs and Symbols’, shows that the patterns are there: ‘I leave it to Nabokovians to relish the appearance in a single volume of the authors Green, Field, and Wood; of Dole and Dolinin; and of the marvellously paired William Carroll and Carol Williams (cf. Campbell and Beauchamp in Pale Fire)’. [3] This comment reveals the particularly mad style of reading Nabokov infects his best characters and readers with. It is a style which sees—and is almost insistent upon seeing—in such seemingly arcane lists as bibliographies organising themes, alliterations, and anagrammed names such that, had we not known that this were a work of secondary literature, we should be certain that Nabokov is here, toying with us. If writers haunt their readers from the dead, Nabokov, to paraphrase John Banville, is ‘here, invisible, mischievous, and meddling’. [4]

II.

In his essay ‘Good Readers and Good Writers’, Nabokov writes: ‘The real writer, the fellow who sends planets spinning and models a man asleep and eagerly tampers with the sleeper’s rib, that kind of author has no given values at his disposal: he must create them himself’. [5] While Nabokov’s comparison of himself to that strange deity for whom ‘reality’ means nothing except in exclusive relation to himself might seem the height of haughtiness, Nabokov’s analogy nevertheless provides a new way of thinking about God’s authorial presence amidst reality and his manifestation in Holy Scripture, particularly in Scripture’s account of the death of Christ and what may be said concerning God’s presence in that moment.

In the first place, Nabokov’s insistence that the divine author ‘has no given values at his disposal’ and instead ‘must create them himself’ seems heterodox, implying that God is capricious. However, rather than as the three transcendentals, these ‘values’ are best understood as the form and function of the cosmos, as well as the infinite possibilities of God’s providential acts mediated through it: ‘The material of this world may be real enough (as far as reality goes) but does not exist at all as an accepted entirety: it is chaos, and to this chaos the author says “go!” allowing the world to flicker and to fuse. . . . The writer is the first man to map it and to name the natural objects it contains’. [6] In a later essay from the same volume, Nabokov writes: ‘The natural morals of mankind are as irrational as the magic rites that they evolved since the immemorial dimness of time’. [7] These ‘values’ therefore relate also to what is constitutive of a religious act and reflect Nabokov’s firm insistence that, in the case of the creation of woman, there is no ethical, aesthetic, or metaphysical a priori dictating that Adam should go under the divine scalpel, except, we might venture, that it was in keeping with God’s character that it should be so. The doctrine of creation ex nihilo affirms this: there was nothing requiring that God either ought or must create woman by eagerly tampering with his anaesthetised subject. It is precisely in this sense that God, if we can put it thus, is capricious and magically mysterious. But is there any sense in asking why this way and not some other way? While Nabokov, and to my knowledge no theologian, provides no definitive answer to this question, Nabokov’s metaphysical aesthetics of deception give us a paradigm to think this through constructively.

III.

It is clear that Nabokov’s identification of ‘the real writer’ as the one who ‘eagerly tampers with the sleeper’s rib’ is an allusion to the creation narratives found in the Hebrew Bible, particularly the creation of woman from man, which reads: ‘So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then he took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh’ (Gen 2.21). [8] The Greek word the Septuagint uses to translate the Hebrew word for rib (צֵלָע, ṣēlā), πλευρά (pleura), also appears in John’s account of Jesus’s crucifixion when Pilate, having expressed amazement at Jesus’s quick death, orders a soldier to pierce Jesus’s side (pleura) with a spear. Interestingly, John clarifies that no bones were broken in the process (John 19.34). This is, according to John, in fulfilment of what the Scriptures say concerning the Passover lamb (Ex 12.46, Num 9.12), as well as concerning the messianic identity indicated in the Psalms (Ps 34.20). Equipped with Nabokov’s metaphysical aesthetics, however, we might instead place greater emphasis on Christ’s Adamic fulfilment of the pierced side.

Whatever the precise nature of Christ’s fulfilment, common sense tells us that prior to the resurrection all signs point to God’s absence at the crucifixion, and it is precisely this sort of conclusion which Nabokov challenges. In his lecture ‘The Art of Literature and Commonsense’, Nabokov claims that ‘commonsense’ is condemnable on ethical and metaphysical grounds: ‘Commonsense is fundamentally immoral, for the natural morals of mankind are as irrational as the magic rites that they evolved since the immemorial dimness of time. Commonsense at its worst is sense made common, and so everything is comfortably cheapened by its touch’. [9] Common sense is the enemy of wonder and surprise, and it is under the guise of righteousness that common sense justifies the destruction and denial of the sacred. In contrast, by restoring to us the otherness of the reality which the text not only points to and was birthed from, but which the text itself is, Nabokov’s estranging techniques re-sacralise what common sense has sought to eradicate:

‘There is not a single person . . . who, at some nicely chosen point in historical space-time would not be put to death there and then, here and now, by a commonsensical majority in righteous rage. . . . And the more brilliant, the more unusual the man, the nearer he is to the stake. Stranger always rhymes with danger. . . . And this being so, let us bless them, let us bless the freak; for in the natural evolution of things, the ape would perhaps never have become man had not a freak appeared in the family’. [10]

If we are to think with Nabokov about the problem of God’s seeming absence amidst Jesus’s crucifixion as presented in John’s gospel, we must remember that it is only common sense which tells us that all signs point to God’s absence, when, in fact, one very deceptive sign points to his presence. Might we then conceive of God as winking at us through someone as unexpected as the soldier tampering with Jesus’s side? In other words, might we imagine the soldier to be a sign of God’s sacramental presence in, with, and under the Christ hung aloft? That is, the soldier, in a generously transgressive sense, by tearing flesh and drawing blood performs the sacred rite of anamnesis and with unparalleled zoological literality reports to Pilate that it is the body and blood of Jesus.

This sort of mad reading which Nabokov requires of his best readers, who with a paranoid eye are ever on the lookout for patterns superimposed one upon another, seeking to find in them some mark of the contrapuntal genius who had disarranged them, requires us to refuse any reading of John 19 which would infer God’s absence that fateful day on Calvary, especially as John’s Jesus utters no cry (Isa 42.2). It would actually be nonsense to infer anything except God’s presence. The first time a sleeper’s rib is divinely tampered with occurs in Genesis 2, yet it was by no means the last time a sleeper should be prodded.

Were this account written by Nabokov, this surgical pattern would be the strongest narratological case for God’s mediated presence and providence at the crucifixion. In this reading, the divine anaesthetic administered to Adam becomes the type to the antitype of the gall-mixed wine which Jesus would drink to dull the pain inflicted upon him, and the divine operation by which Adam’s πλευρά is plumbed without being broken, thereby enacting the first marriage, is fulfilled in this final tampering with the Son of Man’s πλευρά by Pilate’s soldier, which confirms that what Christ declares finished is also very good (John 19.30; Gen 1.31). It is therefore no accident that Christ died so quickly, and it is a deceptive watermark of Nabokov’s contrapuntal genius that Pilate should order one of his soldiers to tamper with the sleeper’s rib. Furthermore, Nabokov’s metaphysical aesthetics open up the possibility that insofar as Christ is the fulfilment of the Adamic type, then so also in the moment commonly perceived as Christ’s definitive moment of solitude does God speak to us through the deceptive guise of the impaling soldier, for ‘it is not good that man should be alone’ (Gen 2.18). While it is for biblical scholars to determine whether such a reading is tenable in the immediate context of John’s gospel, Nabokov provides us with a surprising and structurally coherent way of conceiving of God’s presence amidst Christ’s passion.

IV.

As we have seen, Nabokovian deception is the subtle structural mimesis which withholds its identity and significance until the careful re-reader intimates the conjurer and conjuring behind, as it were, the deception. At a metafictional level this conjurer is Nabokov. At a metaphysical level it is ‘that other V. N., Visible Nature’, which is the deceptive manifestation of ‘the contrapuntal genius of human fate’. [11] Deception is a parodic and strange-making device which reveals as much about the deceiver as the deceived. In the case of the deceived, deception unconceals the spectator’s untrained eye and condemns the ease with which the commonsensical person disregards the delicate sacramental markers of the magician’s twinkling eye, much like the starving predator whose generalising eye mistakes the deceptive camouflage of the Orange Oakleaf Butterfly (Kallima inachus)—complete with a scattering of tiny black dots replicating the carnivorous effects of gnawing hungry ants—for an actual leaf and starves to death inches away from what would have given it life, like those who see in Hans Holbein the Younger’s The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb (1520–22) only a rotting carcass when in actuality what is revealed is the body broken for us. It is a sign of its being richly alive that it emits signs of death. As concerns the deceiver, particularly when that deceiver is the divine—‘There was something that he hid from all men’, Chesterton writes in Orthodoxy [12]—we must remember that not only did Jesus conceal his identity from his disciples during their walk to Emmaus, but that Jesus kept up the charade of his remaining dead and fled the scene like a thief in the night when his trick was found out (Luke 24.31; 1 Thess 5.2). Save divine caprice, there is no use asking why he should deceive then and not some other time, but we can speculate as to what this messianic deception reveals. ‘There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when he walked upon our earth’, writes Chesterton, ‘and I have sometimes fancied that it was his mirth’. [13] In Nabokovian terms, his joy—dangerous because it is sacred—is concealed by the deceptive guise of his sorrow and for this reason he is called ‘man of sorrows’, but not exclusively so, for as Chesterton rightly notes, the solemn concoct medicine whereas the joyful conjure sacraments. [14]

Presented with the story of Christ’s pierced side in John’s gospel, we offer the conclusion that those who deny God’s presence here do so because they have favoured the historicity of plot to the neglect of theological-aesthetic repetition. Such readers are, according to Nabokovian deception, reluctant to imagine that God is present in moments of great tragedy not because God is in fact absent, but because neither their memory nor imaginations are sufficiently fantastical to notice the superimposed patterns of sides divinely pierced. By denying the possibility of the carnivalesque and the grotesque, of God identifying sacramentally with sinners, we are left with tragedy alone.

Nabokov’s metaphysical aesthetics, particularly as they relate to deception as a mode or style of divine manifestation, challenge us to reconsider how we might responsibly speak of God’s self-revelation via phenomenal manifestation. They also challenge us to rethink God’s benevolent presence amidst Christ’s passion. When applied to John’s crucifixion narrative, the strange-making character of Nabokovian deception returns us to a world in which God is there, visible, mischievous, meddling, placing thorns in sides and skulls.

Encores occur not only after curtains have been dropped, but also after they have been torn. Nabokov presents the penetration of Jesus’s side as a kind of Chestertonian-grotesque encore: ‘The repetition . . . may not be a mere occurrence; it may be a theatrical encore. . . . It may be that our little tragedy has touched the gods, that they admire it from their starry galleries, and that at the end of every human drama man is called again and again before the curtain’. [15] For Nabokov, then, the divine director appears as a deathly figure, as Shakespeare is rumoured to have done in Hamlet, next to the son doubting his father’s presence. We might even imagine that Roman soldier with his insidious spear dressed in the costume of a carnivalesque executioner complete with dark robe and even darker hood. ‘A grateful spectator is content to applaud the grace with which the masked performer melts in Nature’s background’. [16]


[1] Vladimir Nabokov, ‘Good Readers and Good Writers’, in Lectures on Literature, ed. Fredson Bowers, (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1980), 5.

[2] Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited, in Nabokov: Novels and Memoirs 1941–1951, ed. Brian Boyd (New York: Library of America, 1996), 629.

[3] Quoted in Yuri Leving, Anatomy of a Short Story: Nabokov’s Puzzles, Codes, ‘Signs and Symbols’ (London: Continuum, 2012), 3. One might also add the stronger anagrammatic pair Jakob Gradus and Sudarg of Bokay, also from Pale Fire.

[4] John Banville, ‘An Afterword: The Saddest Story’, in Anatomy of a Short Story, 333.

[5] Nabokov, ‘Good Readers’, 2.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Vladimir Nabokov, ‘The Art of Literature and Commonsense’, in Lectures on Literature, 372.

[8] As Gen 2.21 clarifies that ‘the Lord God . . . closed up its place with flesh’, it would seem that the first blood to be spilled in the biblical corpus is neither sacrificial nor atoning (in the sense conveyed by some interpretations of Gen 3.21), occurring as it did before the Fall, but efficacious to make possible a new kind of existence—marriage—which heretofore was impossible.

[9] Nabokov, ‘Art of Literature’, 372.

[10] Ibid. Cf. Alison Milbank, ‘Apologetics and the Imagination: Making Strange’, in Imaginative Apologetics: Theology, Philosophy and the Catholic Tradition, ed. Andrew Davison (London: SCM Press, 2011), 34. Though Milbank makes no mention of Nabokov, there is an eerie similarity in her words concerning the ‘priestly action’ of naming and those Nabokov deployed in ‘Good Readers and Good Writers’, 2.

[11] Nabokov, Strong Opinions (London: Penguin, 2011), 130; Nabokov, Speak, Memory, 629.On nature as a possible name for the divine, see Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire, in Nabokov: Novels 1955–1962, ed. Brian Boyd (New York: Library of America, 1996), notes to line 549.

[12] G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (1908; repr., Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2006), 155, emphasis added.

[13] Ibid.

[14] G. K. Chesterton, Heretics (1905; repr., Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2007), 57–58.

[15] Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 55. On Chesterton and the grotesque, see Alison Milbank, ‘The Grotesque’, in Chesterton and Tolkien as Theologians: The Fantasy of the Real (London: T&T Clark, 2008), esp. 56-70.

[16] Nabokov, Strong Opinions, 130.

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